The UK Government has launched a new campaign to encourage people back to their workplaces, in response to concerns that city centres are becoming ghost towns, with local businesses suffering as a result. 

It comes as little surprise that the different administrations of the UK are split, with Nicola Sturgeon saying she doesn't want to see people intimidated into returning to workplaces before it is safe to do so.

Even the UK Government seems split on the issue, with health secretary Matt Hancock saying he cared more about employees delivering rather than whether they did so working from home or not. And one commentator suggested that original "Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives" slogan should now be replaced with "Leave Home, Forget the NHS, Save Pret". 

But what about employers?

What are the obligations on an employer looking to have employees return to the workplace, whether in an office, a building site or a bus? The starting point is simple enough: the employer should carry out a risk assessment and mitigate the risks the best that it can (whether by the use of screens, social distancing, masks or whatever else). 

However, the prudent employer will wish to discuss the return to work with the workforce and address any areas of concern. Beyond short-term practical difficulties which can no doubt be overcome (I have become quite used to be being able to look after our beagle whilst working from home), employers need to be aware of two main areas of challenge open to employees who feel that they are being pressured back into the workplace —

  • Employees with health conditions which put them at higher risk of contracting or becoming seriously ill with COVID-19, may challenge any blanket return policy as being discriminatory
  • Employees who reasonably (even if mistakenly) believe that there is a serious and imminent risk (to them or their loved ones) with returning to work are afforded protection against dismissal

A blanket approach is therefore likely to be a high risk strategy for any employer.

This seems to be reflected in a BBC survey that revealed 50 of the UK's largest employers have no plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future. 

It appears likely that there will be a gradual return to the traditional workplace, but remote working is likely to be far more common in what will eventually emerge as the norm.